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In Florida, Lawmakers Fight To Kill ‘Gun-Free’ Zones

Florida lawmakers convene this week in Tallahassee, an event traditionally kicked off by a barrage of wacko gun legislation.

This year, some of it actually stands a chance of passing.

The worst by far is a bill filed in both the House and Senate that would eliminate all “gun-free” zones in the state. If passed, persons with concealed-weapons permits would be able to carry firearms to pro sports events, bars, police stations, K-12 public schools, public colleges and universities, courthouses, polling places, government meetings, seaports, and airport passenger terminals.

To single out just one of the many pathways to random bloodshed, Republican lawmakers seem determined to make handguns accessible wherever mass quantities of alcohol are being consumed.

What would normally be a sloppy fistfight in the stands at a Dolphins game could literally be a .45-caliber shootout next season. And if you think campus keg parties aren’t lively enough, throw a couple of loaded Glocks into the mix.

Polls show widespread opposition to abolishing gun-free zones, a view shared by college officials, business leaders, and many in law enforcement.

But the politicians pushing for more firearms in public are serving a higher master: the NRA.

Its unabashed darling in the Senate is mild-mannered Dennis Baxley, who is, fittingly, an undertaker by trade. His Ocala funeral parlor could see an uptick in business if guns are allowed in bars.

On the House side, Speaker Richard Corcoran insists criminals and mass shooters are attracted to gun-free zones because they know civilians there won’t be armed. Lawmakers say the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando and the shooting at the Fort Lauderdale airport might have been prevented if the victims had been carrying weapons.

This Charles Bronson fantasy is avidly promoted by the NRA. It relies on the false premise that anyone with a concealed-weapons permit is both calm enough and skilled enough to fire a handgun in crowded mayhem and actually hit the right person.

The airport mass shooting, committed by an unhinged legal gun owner, took less than 90 seconds. The victims, some on their way to meet a cruise ship, had just gotten off a Delta flight.

Even if any of them had brought a weapon, it would have been packed inside their checked luggage, as was the shooter’s semiautomatic Walther. The killing was over before many of the bags landed on the carousel.

So much for the Bronson scenario.

It took an army of cops to bring down the Pulse shooter (another licensed gun owner), yet we’re supposed to believe he could have been taken out by a single armed club patron, pointing a handgun in dimly lit clamor at a fast-moving assailant firing an assault rifle.

Well, maybe in the movies.

NRA-backed lawmakers won key committee assignments in the new Legislature, which means that several of this session’s bad gun laws have a better-than-usual chance of passing.

One such bill, opposed by prosecutors, makes it easier for shooters to claim a Stand Your Ground defense. It resurfaces now, as a retired Tampa police captain is on trial for fatally shooting a man during a confrontation in a movie theater.

The victim was armed with a bag of popcorn and a cell phone.

Even if the state’s gun-free zones are abolished, companies and private business owners can’t legally be required to allow customers with weapons on their property. Never fear — one GOP senator has a devious compliance tactic.

Sen. Greg Steube of Bradenton, a favorite pet of the NRA, has filed a bill aimed to punish the many retailers, restaurants, nightclubs, theme parks, movie theaters and other businesses that prohibit firearms. Among the big names potentially affected would be Disney, Costco, and Whole Foods.

Steube’s measure would allow anyone holding a concealed-weapons permit to sue a gun-banning establishment if he or she gets shot, or otherwise assaulted, on the premises. The legal claim would be that they could have protected themselves had they been armed.

It’s a tort lawyer’s dream. If your drunken stepbrother sneaks a stolen pistol into a bar and shoots you in the ass, you get to sue the bar because you were deprived of the chance to shoot him first.

That scenario fits Will Ferrell better than Charles Bronson, but it’s closer to reality than the NRA can ever admit.

Marissa Alexander’s Out Of Jail, But Not Yet Free

Marissa Alexander got out of jail last week, but she is not free. At best, she enjoys only a species of freedom, a defective freedom that imperfectly resembles the real thing.

After a cumulative total of three years behind bars, she will now spend two years on house arrest, monitored by a GPS ankle bracelet. The monitoring, for which she must pay $105 a week, was agreed to by a judge over the objection of prosecutors who wanted her to do two more years in jail.

All this for firing a gun into the air.

Alexander, a 34-year-old Jacksonville, Florida, woman, has endured a nightmarish odyssey through the Florida injustice system ever since the day in August of 2010 that she got into a fight with her husband, Rico Gray. She said Gray, whom she and other women describe as a serial woman beater, started strangling her when he found text messages from her first husband on her phone. Alexander managed to escape to her garage, intending to flee in her truck. Realizing she had left her keys in the house, she said, she armed herself with a gun and went back inside. When her husband came at her again, she fired a warning shot and he fled.

In his deposition, Gray largely corroborated her story. “I told her if she ever cheated on me, I would kill her,” he said. Had she not had the gun, he added, he would have “probably hit her. I got five baby mamas and I put my hands on every last one of them, except for one.”

But when Alexander’s attorney filed for dismissal under Florida’s Stand Your Ground statute, this sterling example of humanity changed his story. In the new version, he never threatened to kill Alexander and “begged and pleaded” for his life when she produced the gun. When CNN asked for an interview about all this, Gray agreed. Then declined. Then asked for money. CNN passed.

Prosecutors offered Alexander a plea bargain — three years against a possible 20 for aggravated assault. Alexander declined, reasoning that surely no jury would convict her under these circumstances. They convicted her in 12 minutes.

Awarded a new trial because of a procedural error, she was again offered a deal, except that this time, the stakes were higher: a possible 60-year prison sentence. Again, this is for shooting into the air — in Florida, yet, a gun-happy state where you can legally erect a shooting range in your own backyard and blaze away.

Wisely, Alexander took the deal.

Some observers see a racial double standard in all of this. How is it, they want to know, that George Zimmerman was only standing his ground when he stalked and killed an unarmed black boy, but Marissa Alexander committed aggravated assault when she shot a wall?

Some see a gender-based unfairness, a stony lack of compassion for women facing domestic violence.

And some see a fresh example of how mandatory sentencing guidelines imposed by politicians wanting to seem “tough on crime” have instead made our courts tough on common sense. Note that the judge who first sentenced Alexander had no leeway under the law. Even he said his 20-year sentence “may be legal, but it is wrong.”

So what we have here, then, is a convergence of multiple unfairnesses that leaves Alexander, a mother of three who had never been in trouble before, a convicted felon, a designation that will deprive her of the right to vote and shadow her throughout her life from now forward. That is both travesty and tragedy.

This is a case that cries out for gubernatorial clemency or presidential pardon. It ought to make decent people sick — sick enough to demand reform.

Because, it’s all well and good Marissa Alexander is finally home, but make no mistake. What she has now is only a kind of freedom.

And no kind of justice at all.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FlL, 33132. Readers may contact him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

Photo: WeAreUltraViolet via Flickr

Another Stand Your Ground Case In Florida Continues The Controversy

By David Ovalle, Miami Herald (TNS)

MIAMI — Tyrone Smith knew how to use his fists. Around his Miami Gardens neighborhood, the 19-year-old was known as the “Karate Kid” because he taught local children self-defense and how to stand up to bullies.

But when Smith felt insulted and began shouting at neighbor Jason Kinsey, the confrontation did not end in fisticuffs. Instead, Kinsey, 20, fatally shot the unarmed teenager — claiming he was defending himself against the martial arts expert.

A judge agreed. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge William Thomas last month ruled that Kinsey did act in self-defense, saying prosecutors are “discounting the enormity of Smith’s rage and the level of physical skill that Smith possessed as compared to Kinsey.”

The legal fight, however, is far from over. The state attorney’s office is now appealing the judge’s decision to dismiss the second-degree murder charge.

For prosecutors and Smith’s family, the case encapsulates all that is wrong with Florida’s Stand Your Ground law: Smith was unarmed, challenging Kinsey to an “old-school” fistfight only after being repeatedly provoked.

“People use that to get away with murder,” said Smith’s grandmother, Cynthia Hill. “The law needs to be modified.”

Travares Daniels, Smith’s uncle, said: “I know if a jury had heard this, he’d be going to jail.”

But for Kinsey and his defense team, the law worked exactly as lawmakers designed it. Kinsey was the bullied victim and had no duty to retreat. His fear of “great bodily harm” was real, even if Smith had no weapon in his hands, said attorney Richard Gregg.

“This case shows how the Stand Your Ground law is supposed to work and does work,” Gregg said. “It’s textbook.”

Smith is still facing an illegal firearm and evidence-tampering charge. He is under house arrest as prosecutors appeal.

Passed in 2005, Florida’s Stand Your Ground law eliminated a citizen’s duty to retreat in the face of a mortal threat. And more vexing for prosecutors, the law also gave judges more leeway to throw out criminal charges — before a jury trial — if they deem that someone acted in self-defense.

Critics say the law promotes a shoot-first vigilante mentality that allows criminals a pass on justice.

The law came under national scrutiny in the racially charged case of George Zimmerman, a Sanford man who claimed self-defense in killing unarmed Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin in February 2012. The neighborhood watch member claimed he shot only after Martin attacked him first, repeatedly bashing his head on the ground.

Police initially cited the law in not charging Zimmerman. Prosecutors eventually charged him with second-degree murder. Jurors acquitted Zimmerman.

Zimmerman declined to ask a judge for immunity. Plenty of other defendants across Florida have gone straight to judges, with some successes.

In Miami-Dade, Kinsey’s was at least the fifth murder case to be thrown out directly by a judge.

The others:

–– Luis Martinez, who fatally shot a pipe-wielding, drug-addled attacker during a wild confrontation on a sidewalk in North Miami-Dade in September 2009.

––Dennis Sosa Palma, who fatally stabbed his brother after he said the man drunkenly attacked him with a knife in May 2010 inside their Little Havana efficiency.

––Alexander Lima-Lopez, who shot and killed an attacker who had beaten him at his Hialeah home in April 2011.

––Greyston Garcia, who chased down a thief who had broken into his truck and stolen his radio in Little Havana in January 2011. He felled the thief with one fatal knife thrust to the chest.

A judge ruled that Garcia acted in self-defense because the thief swung a bag filled with heavy car radios, citing a medical examiner’s testimony that “a 4-6 pound bag of metal being swung at one’s head would lead to serious bodily injury or death.”

Prosecutors wanted to appeal the decision but Garcia was killed by random gunfire outside a Liberty City convenience store.

The State Attorney’s Office hasn’t had success with self-defense appeals.

Last year, the 3rd District Court of Appeals granted immunity to Gabriel Mobley, an Opa-locka man who claimed self-defense after fatally shooting two unarmed attackers outside a Northwest Miami-Dade Chili’s restaurant. The court overturned a Miami-Dade judge’s refusal to throw out the case.

The state attorney’s office says the Mobley ruling has hampered prosecutors’ ability to even file charges in the first place against people who have fatally shot unarmed people. That was the case in at least three killings here in recent months.

“The Stand Your Ground law and the appellate decisions have cheapened human life,” said Miami-Dade Chief Assistant State Attorney Kathleen Hoague. “The law encourages people to arm themselves and settle differences with deadly force. You can set up a confrontation, arm yourself and legally get away with murder these days.”

Kinsey had graduated from high school but was not working in order to care of his cancer-stricken brother, according to his lawyer. Though he was looking for a job, Kinsey mostly played video games and hung out with friends outside his home.

Smith was an avid skateboarder and artist who was studying to be an electrician, according to relatives. He has also studied karate and volunteered to work with local children at nearby Rainbow Park.

“I have never seen him raise his voice. I have never seen him get upset,” neighbor Valisha Robinson said in a deposition. “The only thing I’ve ever seen this boy do was, you know, play with the little kids, teach the little kids how to defend themselves.”

He was also new to the neighborhood, having just moved into his sister’s house. The week before the shooting, he complained to his grandmother that Kinsey and his friends had been heckling him as he walked by on his way to the park.

“He wasn’t a person who liked to argue with people,” Hill said. “He said, ‘There’s these boys always bothering me.'”

On Aug. 24, 2013, Smith was walking past Kinsey’s home, where he was hanging out with a pal when somebody said something “vulgar” to him. Whatever the comment, it set Smith off and he “prodded the defendant to exit his property and fight him,” prosecutor Denise Georges wrote in a court filing.

Smith eventually walked away. Moments later, Kinsey said, he called a friend, who brought him a handgun, and then opened the house’s gate “to entice Smith to enter his property.”

Later, Smith walked past again, this time accompanied by several children, including his 5-year-old nephew, carrying mats and other karate equipment. Smith, in a rage and using profanity, repeatedly challenged Kinsey to fight.

“Bring your ass right here,” Smith hollered to the armed man. “I’m in college, what the f — you doing … you sitting there all day, every day … when can I get my one-on-one.”

According to prosecutors’ account, a neighbor implored Kinsey: “Take it to the old school. He just want to fight. Put down your gun and fight like a man.”

Smith shouted that he also had a “rifle at my crib.” He refused to go onto Kinsey’s property. “I know my legal rights … sidewalk is government property.”

Nothing happened at that moment. Smith left to take his nephew home. But he returned to the front of Kinsey’s house several minutes later.

Witnesses differed on exactly what happened next. One neighbor said Smith just had his hands balled up and took two steps before the gunfire erupted. But Kinsey testified that Smith — shirtless, and brandishing no weapon — charged at him.

Kinsey fired two bullets, felling him at a range of just a few feet. His body fell on the sidewalk, never having been on the property.

But Kinsey said he fired because he was defending his home. Judge Thomas decided that video — which included Smith saying he would spread Kinsey’s “blood all over the street” — showed “Smith’s relentless determination to violently harm Kinsey.”

He also noted that Kinsey never once attacked Smith. “It was Smith who got violent. It was Smith who became uncontrollably enraged,” the judge said.

The judge also noted that several neighbors “had the opportunity to stop this madness. But rather than intervening to end the violent encounter, the continued to encourage the young men to fight. … During this time, no one called the police. No one said stop!”

Photo:  LaDawna’s pics via Flickr

Florida Supreme Court To Hear ‘Stand Your Ground’ Case

By Jeff Weiner, Orlando Sentinel (TNS)

An unexpected roadway confrontation between a family from Indiana and a Kissimmee, Fla., man three years ago could soon reshape the way Florida’s “stand your ground” law is applied in cases throughout the state.

Wrapping up a vacation on Dec. 29, 2011, Ronald Bretherick was driving toward Disney World with his wife, Deborah, and their son and daughter, when the family says they were nearly sideswiped by an sport-utility vehicle on U.S. Highway 192.

Bretherick honked as the other driver, Derek Dunning, sped past in a blue Escalade.

From there, the situation quickly escalated.

By the time it was over, the Brethericks’ son Jared was in jail, accused of pointing a gun at Dunning. The then-22-year-old said he was trying to assure his family’s safety until authorities arrived.

Though no shots were fired, a judge refused his request for immunity from prosecution under “stand your ground.” He appealed, challenging the procedure used by Florida courts in “stand your ground” cases.

The Florida Supreme Court is set to hear his case Tuesday. If Jared Bretherick prevails, defendants may no longer have to prove they acted in self-defense in order to win immunity — potentially expanding the application of the self-defense law.

Deborah Bretherick said she could see trouble coming after her husband hit the horn.

“The way he stared at me, it was just the most unnerving” look, she recalled in a recent interview.

According to the Brethericks’ account: Dunning cut them off, then came to a stop in front of them, in the center lane of traffic, and left his SUV. Ronald called 911 and showed his still-holstered gun as a warning. Dunning then returned to his SUV but backed it up toward the Brethericks.

Deputies said they arrived to find Jared Bretherick standing outside his family’s truck, pointing his father’s gun toward Dunning’s SUV.

His mother and sister had fled to the roadside; Jared explained he stayed behind to protect his father, a disabled veteran. He also said he heard Dunning claim to have a gun, though none was found.

Jared Bretherick was arrested on an aggravated assault charge. After a hearing in June 2012, Circuit Judge Scott Polodna largely accepted the Brethericks’ account as true, but denied Jared’s request for immunity, due to several factors:

––Dunning wasn’t committing a forcible felony, the judge ruled. At worst, he said Dunning’s driving was reckless and the “threatening act” of leaving his SUV to approach the Brethericks was assault, a misdemeanor.

––After Ronald Bretherick waved the gun, Dunning returned to his SUV — a “retreat,” the judge ruled.

––Polodna didn’t buy that Dunning had claimed to have a gun and said there also was a miscommunication: Jared Bretherick told Dunning to leave or he would shoot, but Dunning said he heard, “If you move, I will shoot you.”

“This slight but critical misunderstanding explains everyone’s subsequent actions,” Polodna wrote.

Bretherick appealed Polodna’s ruling, challenging the procedure Florida courts have used for years, which places the burden of proof on the defense to win immunity without a trial.

The argument for Bretherick’s side: Florida’s self-defense law promises “immunity,” even from arrest, so those who act in self-defense shouldn’t have anything to prove.

The Fifth District Court of Appeal, finding that the burden issue hadn’t been specifically addressed in previous cases, asked the state Supreme Court for guidance.

If the Supreme Court sides with Bretherick, those who claim “stand your ground” in the future would not have to prove it. Instead, the state would have to prove the defendant did not act in self-defense, in a pretrial hearing and again at trial.

“If the court rules the state’s got the burden, I think it’s going to open the door for a lot of lawyers to use the immunity statute that were not using it,” said Robert Buonauro, an Orlando attorney with “stand your ground” experience.

Charles Rose, director of Stetson Law’s Center for Excellence in Advocacy, says the burden debate arises from a basic issue: The law was designed as “a political statement about the right to bear arms,” but lacked specifics, giving no procedure for how the courts would decide immunity.

“It’s a political statute being applied in the real world set of circumstances,” he said.

Both Rose and Buonauro say the state should have the burden in “stand your ground” cases.

The National Rifle Association, which helped craft “stand your ground,” has filed a brief in support of Bretherick’s position.

Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office, in its response, argued changing the procedure “could call into question the validity of numerous convictions … and disrupt a process now relatively well-honed in the trial courts.”

The Brethericks called 911 as soon as the conflict with Dunning began: “100 percent of my feeling was, as soon as the police get here, we’ll be fine,” Deborah Bretherick recalled.

She said the shock of her son’s arrest was compounded when she learned about Dunning’s past.

A convicted felon, Dunning served prison time in a 2003 case with similar allegations, records show: He attacked a driver who had tried to pass him on John Young Parkway, before hitting the man with his car while fleeing the scene.

Dunning, who also called 911 during the 2011 incident, did not return multiple calls to the cellphone number listed for him in prosecution records. An attorney for Dunning could not be reached.

He told deputies he was confronted by Jared Bretherick at gunpoint after stopping at a traffic light.

Deborah Bretherick said her son is a responsible gun owner who attended a citizens’ academy to learn how to use firearms safely. He faces a mandatory three-year prison sentence if convicted.

“He always has a smile, always greets you with respect,” his mother says. “He’s always just respectful of people’s property, of people in general.”

Jared Bretherick’s lawyer, Eric Friday of Jacksonville, says the arresting deputies fell victim to their initial impressions.

“Some people in law enforcement feel that anybody with a gun other than law enforcement must be a bad guy,” he said. “And I think that’s what happened here.”